How this Chicago startup is bringing in a new era of community-driven journalism

Written by Andreas Rekdal
Published on Jan. 19, 2016
How this Chicago startup is bringing in a new era of community-driven journalism

What would our coverage look like if you, our audience, gave direction about what we reported on?

That is the fundamental question upon which

— a Chicago-based media startup that helps newsrooms solicit audience feedback throughout the reporting process — is built.

Chicagoans may be familiar with the concept by way of WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City — an ongoing series created by Hearken co-founder Jennifer Brandel where the audience ask and vote on questions that are subsequently reported on by WBEZ reporters. Topics covered include street cleaning (“Does it actually do anything?”), Social Security (why do Chicago and Illinois workers not participate?), and everything in between.

Hearken is on a mission to make this kind of community-driven reporting a norm in newsrooms across the world.

Although officially launched in 2015, Hearken was born in 2012 when Brandel got grant money to create a web-based platform for fielding and answering questions from Curious City listeners.

“Audience engagement is great, but there aren’t a lot of scalable products right now that are made specifically for it,” said Brandel (pictured), who had resorted to using generic web forms to gather story ideas. “It ended up being doomed at scale. So maybe if you get 50 questions in, it’s not that hard to keep track of, but when you get a thousand questions in it’s a nightmare.”

Brandel hired a consulting agency to develop the platform that now forms the backbone of Hearken. The idea to form a company around the concept came later, when other newsrooms started asking Brandel how they could adopt the Curious City model.

Together with Chicago startup veteran Corey Haines, she launched a company, “Curious Nation,” to spread the Curious City model to other cities. Since then, the company’s vision expanded to a broader range of community-driven reporting endeavors, and the name was changed to Hearken, which means “to listen intently.”

Hearken’s platform currently offers two widgets that newsrooms can integrate with their websites: a “curiosity module” where audiences can submit their story ideas, and a “voting module” that lets audiences choose their favorite ideas. This spring they’ll also be launching an “interactive reporter notebook” that lets reporters keep audiences in the loop while reporting on stories. All modules can be customized and branded to fit in with the user organization’s visual profile. Hearken also offers a white label standalone site that lets organizations gather all of their community-driven projects under one roof.

On the backend side, Hearken’s platform helps reporters, editors, and producers get a handle on the feedback they’re receiving by organizing the data and trawling for insights. It is designed to be as simple and intuitive as possible to use, since many newsrooms do not have staff with technical expertise on hand.

Simplicity and ease of use was a guiding principle in designing the user-facing widgets.

“We didn’t want the visitor to feel like they’re being asked to do a chore,” said Haines (pictured below), Hearken's CTO, who, along with developer Sam Withrow, did the development work upgrading to the current platform.

To him, one of the most challenging parts of developing the Ruby on Rails platform was ensuring that the tech didn’t get in the way of its purpose. He jokes with his developer friends that he’s gone out of the way to make sure his software is really boring to work on. As the company scales, however, this strategy will pay off, since it will enable the company to hire junior-level engineers and train them from scratch.

More than just a crowdsourcing platform, Hearken’s goal is to provide newsrooms with a new model for community-driven journalism — whether through engaging beat reporting, powering live events, or running regular columns or features. To that end, they’re providing customers with resources describing best practices for audience engagement.

After going through Matter, a San Francisco-based media accelerator program, last year, Hearken raised $700,000 from undisclosed investors. This March, they’ll be finalists in SXSW’s Accelerator pitch competition in Austin.

Images via Hearken.

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